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How do teams typically perform after getting the No. 1 pick?

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Getting the No. 1 pick is exciting, but does it translate into immediate success?

NBA: NBA-Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Pistons are projected to win 25.5 games, according to PointsBetUSA, which is the third-lowest win total for the 2021-22 season.

While oddsmakers don’t expect much from the Pistons next season, there is far less of a consensus from Pistons fans, whose expectations for the team range from a high lottery pick to a play-in berth. Fans who share the most optimistic outlook on the Pistons generally point to the fact that the team got the No. 1 player in the draft, Cade Cunningham. As good as Cade may be, it is also true that he is joining a team that won only 20 games last season (even if that win total is a bit misleading), and hasn’t made many changes to the roster.

Optimism comes with the territory when a team picks No. 1 overall. Players who have been picked there have turned into some of the best in NBA history. This exclusive group of players have also turned in sensational rookie seasons. Of course, it’s also true that not every No. 1 pick turns out to be LeBron James or Zion Williamson (see Kwame Brown and Anthony Bennett).

Regardless of the prospect who was picked at No. 1, it’s important for us to look at the teams who picked those players, and how much success those teams had the very next season. In doing so, we can perhaps determine the most realistic outcome for Cunningham and the Pistons this season.

To do this we will look back at team records before and after selecting No. 1 overall, and we will seek to answer the following questions:

  1. How often do teams get better after picking No. 1?
  2. If teams get better, is it significantly (defined as an increase greater than or equal to 10 games or 12%) better?
  3. How often do teams make the playoffs after picking No. 1?

Let’s take a look at the raw data. Please note I have added comments to the far right to account for some situational information surrounding the teams picking No. 1 overall, when appropriate. To see these comments you may need to use the scroll bar at the bottom of the table.

Team success after picking No. 1 Overall 2000-2020.

Year Team Player # of wins before picking No. 1 # of wins after picking No. 1 Winning % before picking No. 1 Winning % After picking No. 1 % change Change in No. of wins Playoffs? Comments
Year Team Player # of wins before picking No. 1 # of wins after picking No. 1 Winning % before picking No. 1 Winning % After picking No. 1 % change Change in No. of wins Playoffs? Comments
2020 Minnesota Timberwolves Anthony Edwards 19 23 29.69% 31.94% 2.26% 4 no 64 game season vs 82.
2019 New Orleans Pelicans Zion Williamson 33 30 40.24% 41.67% 1.42% -3 no 72 game season vs 82.
2018 Phoenix Suns Deandre Ayton 21 19 25.61% 23.17% -2.44% -2 no
2017 Philadelphia 76ers Markelle Fultz 28 52 34.15% 63.41% 29.27% 24 yes Joel Embiid plays 63 games (only played 31 the season before). Fultz only plays 14 games.
2016 Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons 10 28 12.20% 34.15% 21.95% 18 no #The Process / Embiid doesn't play.
2015 Minnesota Timberwolves Karl-Anthony Towns 16 29 19.51% 35.37% 15.85% 13 no Lost Kevin Love.
2014 Cleveland Cavaliers *Conveyed to MINN in trade with CLE* Andrew Wiggins 33 53 40.24% 64.63% 24.39% 20 yes Added Kevin Love.
2013 Cleveland Cavaliers Anthony Bennett 24 33 29.27% 40.24% 10.98% 9 no
2012 New Orleans Hornets Anthony Davis 21 27 31.82% 32.93% 1.11% 6 no
2011 Cleveland Cavaliers Kyrie Irving 19 21 23.17% 31.82% 8.65% 2 no 66 game season vs 82 (lockout).
2010 Washington Wizards John Wall 26 23 31.71% 28.05% -3.66% -3 no
2009 LA Clippers Blake Griffin 19 29 23.17% 35.37% 12.20% 10 no Blake Griffin misses season.
2008 Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose 33 41 40.24% 50.00% 9.76% 8 yes
2007 Portland Trail Blazers Greg Oden 32 41 39.02% 50.00% 10.98% 9 no Greg Oden misses season.
2006 Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani 27 47 32.93% 57.32% 24.39% 20 yes
2005 Milwaukee Bucks Andrew Bogut 30 40 36.59% 48.78% 12.20% 10 yes
2004 Orlando Magic Dwight Howard 21 36 25.61% 43.90% 18.29% 15 no
2003 Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James 17 35 20.73% 42.68% 21.95% 18 no
2002 Houston Rockets Yao Ming 28 43 34.15% 52.44% 18.29% 15 no
2001 Washington Wizards Kwame Brown 19 37 23.17% 45.12% 21.95% 18 no Michael Jordan joins the Wizards.
2000 New Jersey Nets Kenyon Martin 31 26 37.80% 31.71% -6.10% -5 no
Team success after picking No. 1 Overall 2000-2020.

Now that you have the data, let me summarize this data to help answer our three questions.

Summary of team success after picking No. 1 Overall 2000-2020

# of teams with worse record after picking No. 1 # of teams with better record after picking No. 1 % w/ better record Avg # of incremental wins % Avg of incremental win percentage # of teams that made the playoffs # of teams that missed the playoffs % of teams that made the playoffs after picking No. 1
# of teams with worse record after picking No. 1 # of teams with better record after picking No. 1 % w/ better record Avg # of incremental wins % Avg of incremental win percentage # of teams that made the playoffs # of teams that missed the playoffs % of teams that made the playoffs after picking No. 1
4 17 80.95% 10 12.08% 5 16 23.81%

1. How often do teams get better after picking No. 1? Teams get better 81% of the time.

2. If teams get better, is it significantly (defined as an increase greater than or equal to 12%) better? Astonishingly, yes. Based on the criteria I set prior to organizing the data, teams average exactly 10 additional wins and increase their win percentage by 12% on average.

3. How often do teams make the playoffs after picking No. 1? Not very often. Only five times in the last 21 years have teams made the playoffs the following season.

Before we apply what this may mean for the Pistons this season, we need to add some context that will provide a more robust understanding of the data.

Shortened seasons

The 2019-20 season was cut short due to the pandemic, and the 2020-21 season was scheduled for fewer games due to the timing of when the NBA could get its season started. This will impact the incremental wins for the 2020 Minnesota Timberwolves, and the 2019 New Orleans Pelicans, both of whom pick No. 1 in those years. Lastly, the 2011 season was cut short due to the NBA lockout.

Therefore, it’s best to look at incremental win percentage rather than looking at the incremental wins when comparing teams individually. When averaging the entire sample set, it’s ok to look at incremental wins and incremental win percentage as the sample size is large enough to account for this variation.

Teams that made the playoffs after picking No. 1 overall

Year Team Player # of wins before picking No. 1 # of wins after picking No. 1 Winning % before picking No. 1 Winning % After picking No. 1 % change Change in No. of wins Playoffs? Comments
Year Team Player # of wins before picking No. 1 # of wins after picking No. 1 Winning % before picking No. 1 Winning % After picking No. 1 % change Change in No. of wins Playoffs? Comments
2017 Philadelphia 76ers Markelle Fultz 28 52 34.15% 63.41% 29.27% 24 yes Joel Embiid plays 63 games (only played 31 the season before). Fultz only plays 14 games.
2014 Cleveland Cavaliers *Conveyed to MINN in trade with CLE* Andrew Wiggins 33 53 40.24% 64.63% 24.39% 20 yes Added Kevin Love and LeBron James.
2008 Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose 33 41 40.24% 50.00% 9.76% 8 yes
2006 Toronto Raptors Andrea Bargnani 27 47 32.93% 57.32% 24.39% 20 yes
2005 Milwaukee Bucks Andrew Bogut 30 40 36.59% 48.78% 12.20% 10 yes

As for teams who made the playoffs, two teams stand out as significant outliers. The first being the 2014 Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers selected Andrew Wiggins with the No. 1 overall pick that year. Of course, Wiggins ended up on the Minnesota Timberwolves in a trade for Kevin Love. So while it’s true the Cavaliers did make the playoffs after picking No. 1, it is very misleading data as Wiggins did not play for the team that season.

The second outlier is the 2017 Philadelphia 76ers. The 2017 76ers did make the playoffs after drafting Markelle Fultz, but Fultz hardly played that season (14 games), so the impact he had on the team is marginal.

If the goal is to identify players picked No. 1 who helped lead their team to the playoffs, only three teams probably fit that criteria—the 2008 Chicago Bulls, 2006 Toronto Raptors, and 2005 Milwaukee Bucks. The No. 1 picks on those teams (Derrick Rose, Andrea Bargnani, and Andrew Bogut) all played significant minutes in the team’s rotations en route to the playoffs.

If we were to remove the misleading data from the set, only 14.29% of teams would have made the playoffs after picking No. 1.

Now that we’ve answered these questions we can apply some context as it pertains to the Pistons. As Sean mentioned, the Pistons were much better than their record indicated last season. History also illustrates a favorable outlook, with teams having a better record 81% of the time after picking No. 1 overall. This makes sense. Most teams are at the lowest point when picking No. 1. Even if we were to remove the 2017 76ers and the 2014 Cavaliers from the data set, the average increase in wins and winning percentage over the last 19 seasons are 9 and 10.53%.

Okay, so tell us already! How good will the Pistons be next season?

After evaluating the historical data over the last 21 seasons, a 10-win improvement seems to be a reasonable expectation for the team. Even if we take the median of this data set (that is, the middle most number, which formulaically reduces the noise from large outliers) teams picking No. 1 improve by 10.98%, or nine wins, the following season.

The Pistons also have some compelling arguments for improvement. The team played in many close games last season, and it is possible that they win a few more of those close games due to the experience gained from those situations. It’s also possible that the team would have won more games if it wasn’t so generous when resting its best players. The Pistons will presumably be starting three players (Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, and Saddiq Bey) who will be entering their second season, and intuitively, we would expected to see steps forward from those players, and not steps backwards. Plus, the team is adding a No. 1 pick in Cade.

However, there are a lot of teams that have compelling arguments as well in the Eastern Conference. As I peruse the list of teams it’s hard to make an argument for the Pistons finishing into the play in tournament, much less a playoff berth. I think a 9- to 10-win improvement is probably the most likely outcome for the Pistons, but I do not think the team will make the play in tournament next season. Using my criteria from this exercise, this would classify the Pistons as a “significantly improved” team in 2021-22.